It wouldn’t be Lev Grossman week without an exclusive Lytherus interview! Lev was kind enough to sit down and answer our questions about writing his Magicians world, balancing life between fiction and non-fiction, the parallels of Fillory and Narnia, and more This is a great interview, and I really hope you enjoy it.
Without further ado, take it away Lev!
1: You’ve been a professional writer for a while now. Was writing a book series the natural next step, or is this something you’ve always had tucked away? What about The Magicians series in particular – how did the idea come to you?
The truth is, all I’ve ever wanted to do is write fiction. Reviewing, journalism, all that stuff – those things happened more or less by accident. After I left graduate school I worked for Time Inc. as a web producer for a few years, and after a while it became apparent to everybody that I was a better writer than I was a Web producer (which isn’t saying much), and a lot of older writers at Time were retiring, so they gave me a chance. I was writing fiction that whole time, I just didn’t have much success before The Magicians.
The idea for The Magicians came from a few different things converging, which I think is true of most novels. I’d had the basic idea ages ago, in the 1990’s. I got it from reading A Wizard of Earthsea – I liked the school of magic on Roke so much, I wanted to build a magic school of my own. And then I had a dream about the Beast, and I wrote that down. But I didn’t get serious about writing it until 2004, when fate began to hit me over the head with the idea. I started reading Susanna Clarke. I started reading my brother’s fiction. I started realizing that maybe you really could do what I wanted to try to do — maybe it really was possible. Then my daughter was born, and I had a mid-life crisis. I wanted her to be proud of me. I thought, if not now, when? So I started writing and didn’t stop till it was done.
2: My favorite part of these books is the realness of the characters. I feel that so often in fantasy that even though there are great character struggles, they aren’t always 100% relatable. But Quentin’s various personal trials are absolutely the opposite of that, and I really think you nailed day to day human issues. Take us through developing these flawed, sometimes tortured characters caught between what is real and what is fantastic.
I wanted my characters to talk the way real people talk. I wanted them to use American slang and call each other ‘dude.’ I wanted them to be sarcastic. I wanted them to read fantasy novels, which I think most fantasy characters would do if they lived in the real world. (It’s absurd that Hermione Granger hasn’t read Narnia, for example.) I wanted them to go to the bathroom and drink too much and get depressed and do all that other stuff that fantasy characters don’t usually do, but real people do.
And real people are complicated and neurotic. Who else but a seriously neurotic person would even try to become a magician? I began to think about who really would, and then characters started coming out of the woodwork.
3: Adding on to the previous question, when you set out to write this series, was it about the fantasy first, the adventure and newness of a foreign land, or was it about these beautifully tormented people trying to find their way in the world?
Oh, it was about fantasy first. I wanted to take my 17-year-old self and grant him his dearest wish, which was to be a magician and find a portal out of this world.
The people came later. I figured my 17-year-old self should meet some interesting people along the way — people who were cooler than him, and who would make fun of him in interesting ways. And they did. And my editor pushed me very hard on the characters, I spent an extra year just working on them. She’s not a fantasy person, she couldn’t care less about the magic. She wanted the people to feel real.
4: I want to talk a little bit about developing your world. I’ve seen both lovers and haters of the homage you paid to some of the classic stories, particularly Lewis. I enjoyed the parallels, but I was truly amazed atthe detail you put into Fillory. I’m sure you expected people to notice the similarities, so was Fillory intended as a tongue-in-cheek play on these other worlds? How hard was it to develop all the complexities within Fillory? (I hope this question is okay to ask. I figured this was a topic of curiosity and debate, and words from the author are always interesting in these situations)
It’s OK to ask! What I wanted to write was a book that deliberately played off of Narnia the way same way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead played off of Hamlet, and Wide Sargasso Sea played off Jane Eyre, and the Hours played off Mrs. Dalloway. It’s not secret or even especially subtle — if I was going to do it I wanted to be up front about it. I wanted to have a conversation with C.S. Lewis — to pay him homage, but also to call him on his bullshit, and generally try to shake Narnia and see what rattled. How does the economy work? Where do you go when you die? What would really happen to children caught in a war there? I wanted to ask the questions that Lewis chose not to ask.
But Fillory couldn’t just be a pale shadow of Narnia. It hadto stand up in its own right, it had to have substance, and for that it needed detail detail detail. I overloaded it with detail at first, to the point where it bogged down, and I had to trim it back. It all came very easily. I suppose if I’ve been preparing for anything my whole life, it’s for the construction of a magical otherworld.
5: Without giving too much away for those who haven’t read The Magician King, let’s talk about Julia’s amazing tale in book two. The depth and insight into her was sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing, and quite poignant. Tell us a little bit about the process of bringing her from a secondary character to one of the main ones in this book, and of her journey.
Julia did that herself. I’ve never had much control over her. I knew she’d been up to something in the first book, something serious that mostly happened offstage. I asked her what it was, and she told me. I thought it would take a chapter, but instead it took half the book.
I feel a very close connection to Julia, maybe even closer than I do with Quentin. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like I was shut out of things, and stuck on the outside. Probably everybody has.
6: For fans of the books, what can we expect from the third (and final? Is it the last?) book in the series? Any little hints or tidbits you’d like to share?
It begins back at Brakebills. Not from Quentin’s point of view, or anybody’s point of view that you’d recognize. I wanted to circle back to where it all started, but from a totally different perspective. Other than that … it’s hard to say much without giving it away. It’s a big book, with higher stakes and lots of drama. Right now I’m planning for it to be the last book in this world, so I’m trying to wrap up everything, close all the loops.No more cliffhangers.
Outline outline outline, plan plan plan. I can improvise — and usually my best work happens that way — but only when I’ve got a firm framework to work in.
8: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but tell us a little bit about how you balance all the different writing irons in your fire. Is it hard to make the jump from non-fiction to fiction on a regular basis?
To be honest it’s a relief, going from non-fiction to fiction and back again. They draw on different sides of my brain. I find that while I’m emptying one reservoir, the other one is filling up, and when one is empty I’m ready to switch to the other.
The big problem is time. Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to run two careers at the same time, and be a decent husband and father too…I get pretty stretched. Somebody once said that books are written with time stolen from other people, and I find that to be painfully true.
9: What things are on your reading bookshelf at the moment?
At this exact moment my bookshelf’s pretty bare. I’m rereading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is as good as everybody says, and more. Oh, and I’m rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. That’s pure pleasure.
10: What wonderful writing things can we look forward to in the future (what are you working on now?)?
Just the new Magicians book. And, ah, something secret that I can’t talk about yet. I hope it’s wonderful. It’s a post-Magicians novel — it’s different and yet not. That’s pretty clear, right?